You are invited to join Women’s League Reads, a worldwide conversation about books of interest to today’s Jewish women. Women’s League Reads is a moderated online discussion group, via Google Groups, for members of Women’s League in which everyone is invited to post comments, ask questions and make observations about the book.
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Women’s League Reads is excited to announce our next featured book and author interview, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas. An exclusive, WL members-only author interview will be held on Wednesday, July 17, at 8:30 p.m., Eastern time. Register to become a Woman’s League member here.
Based on this remarkable historical novel, Michael David Lukas has just received the 2019 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature by the Jewish Book Council. The book also received the 2018 National Jewish Book Award. Available in hardcover, paperback, and audio editions, it is a story about honor, love, forgiveness, and shared humanity.
The three story threads are based on the one-thousand years of Jewish presence and integration in Egyptian-Muslim society, which closed with Egyptian nationalism in the 1950s and the ensuing expulsion of native Jews along with “foreigners.” When Lukas spent his junior year of college in 2000 in Cairo, he discovered the historic Ben Ezra Synagogue of Old Cairo, where Solomon Schechter had recovered the treasures of its Geniza. Serendipitously, on a plane ride, Lukas once sat next to a Muslim woman who shared that her ancestors had been “synagogue watchmen,” a hereditary position of honor, wherein Jewish leaders, in cities from North Africa to India, consigned the duty to guard a synagogue’s Torah scrolls and property to a local Muslim family.
The novel’s protagonist, Joseph/Yusef, was the Californian son of two Egyptians, a Jewish mother and Muslim father who met in graduate school and then separated. He flew to Cairo after his father’s death to unravel his mysterious past. His father had been the “last watchman” of the Ben Ezra synagogue and bequeathed to Joseph a scrap from the geniza, which had been a gift to his ancestor. Another thread relates the tale of the very first watchman, his ancestor 800 years earlier, when Jewish leaders, fearing that thieves were after the mystically powerful Ezra Torah Scroll, engaged the very first watchman. Still, another thread takes us to 1896, when Solomon Schechter improbably partnered with two quirky sisters, Scottish biblical scholars, to export the Geniza contents to Cambridge University.
The novel is beautifully written and, in just 265 pages, empathetically but realistically portrays the complex characters. It’s a timeless story about a place and period we seldom study or think of. The author finds hopeful sparks in the interdependence and mutual respect that had once enabled Jewish culture to thrive alongside Islam.
Photo: Irene Young
Conversations with the chosen authors and scholars:
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